Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Great Beyond
A Tribute to Douglas Adams
Carl F Gauze
Douglas Adams died of a heart attack May 11, 2001, at age 49.
Sci-fi is deadly serious stuff. Nuclear winter, laser death rays, faster than light space ships, third world galaxies to exploit, perhaps mutant women with breasts larger than even J. T. Kirk imagined — all important, life changing concepts to discuss. Douglas Adams added a new slant to the genre, the idea that sci-fi might be a vehicle for broad humor rather than the unintentional yucks it used to generate. By 1977, Star Wars had revitalized the moribund business of guessing the future and selling it to the public with out the need to include all that tiresome physics. Any humor up to that point had been of the rubber monster suit and Dialog Depot type, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 mercilessly exploited. Adams had the brilliant idea of aiming the characters and situations at the funny bone, and letting the technology and adventure fall where it might. Along with collaborator Simon Brett, he convinced the BBC Light Comedy Division (I’m serious — they really have such a thing) to air a radio drama based on the adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect as they thumb about the universe after the Vogons bulldoze earth for a hyperspace bypass. Like all comedy, the plot description is far less important than the execution, and the execution was flawless and unexpectedly successful.
Arthur knew you can’t fight city hall, but soon learns you have even less of a chance with Vogon Destructor ships. Arthur finds the Earth will be wiped out, and he missed his chance to attend the hearing since the notice was only posted in a locked office on Alpha Centari. Arthur also discovers that his best friend Ford Prefect is an alien. Not just any alien, but a freelance writer for that smash publication, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book essential to bumming your way around the stars on less than 30 Alterian Dollars a day. Ford was researching Earth, a minor backwater planet that warranted the minimalist entry “Mostly Harmless.” Their adventures with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android and Slartibartfast culminate with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The answer is 42. There. Now you know.
The radio drama represents pinnacle of Adams’ professional career, but he milked the heck out it. The story became a series of novels, a television series, and a computer game. A screenplay was in the works when he died. There were several other novels along the way, including the successful Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but none captured the imagination the way HHGTTG does.
Did Adams change the world? Possibly. Comedy is a much larger part of sci-fi than before, as witnessed by MST3K, Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks!, and that sort of story purists disdain. He did write one immensely successful series of books, and that’s better than writing a dozen that no one reads or remembers. Adams always seemed to enjoy himself, and people enjoyed being around him. It seems good enough for me.
Addition information on Douglas Adams and his work may be found at http://www.douglasadams.com and http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~nhughes/dna/faqs/ .